BOOK | Blue Window | Culinary Adventures in the Alps — Switzerland II

Martigny in the Rhone Valley, Canton Valais, was called Octodurus by the Romans. View from the vineyards over the town and the Rhone Valley at Martigny Croix, mount Grand-Chavalard on the left, rising up to 2899 metres.
© Switzerland Tourism / Swiss Image

Route | Stories | Recipes


SWISS VALLEY MEALS


Wafer-thin slices of air-dried beef, served on a thin slice of rye bread, accompanied with a glass of red wine, chunks of cheese, roasted chestnuts and hot apple pie, and lamb’s lettuce salad. These dishes epitomise Swiss traditional food and the Swiss attitude toward healthy living. Products that are abundant in the Valais / Wallis canton of south-west Switzerland.


SALVAN
Fondue

High above Martigny where the Rhône valley turns eastwards, the picturesque town of Salvan is an alpine vision of perfection. Here the restaurants serve a special fondue made from mountain pasture cheese, in the tradition of their forebearers. The Savoy Alps and the Jura range are believed to be the birthplace of this comforting winter dish and there is ample evidence to suggest that fondue is a product of the dairy farmers who have tended cattle for centuries in these mountains.

Emmental, Gruyère and Vacherin, cheeses that form the basis for fondue, only tell part of the story. The Vacherin cheese of Fribourg is preferred by fondue aficionados because it adds full flavour to the mildness of the Emmental and the piquancy of the Gruyère – the combination for the classic Neuchâteloise.

Neuchâteloise, moitié moitié (half Gruyère, half Vacherin) and the fondue served in Salvan restaurants and along the valley canton are among the most popular with Swiss people. But if you want to know which cheeses go into which fondues served in the Alps you will have to ask. It is in these mountains that fondue makes its reputation, as chefs compete with each other to produce the ‘perfect’ fondue. And they are not going to give away their trade secrets.

Of course the popularity of this amazing cheese dish may also have something to do with the tradition that demands punishment when a diner loses their bread in the fondue pot. A man must buy a bottle of wine or a round of drinks. A woman must kiss all the men in the company. [snip]

Salvan

Salvan to Saxon (walk)


ROC BLANC
A Walk in the Woods

There are several walks out of Salvan, all signposted in the familiar yellow well known to all hikers in Switzerland. The easiest path follows the river Trient down to Vernayaz on the Rhône valley floor. We are taking the challenging path up past the hamlet of Gueurox to the edge of the Mont d’Ottan ridge, overlooking the scary expanse of the flood plain, where the river Dranse flows into the mighty Rhône amidst the cultivated fruit trees and chestnut groves. Here at the ridge, no matter the season, the wind is lethal. Caution is obligatory.

Then it is a gradual climb toward the peak of Roc Blanc at 1704 metres. We skirt this majestic mountain, and descend quickly, across the steep road that goes to Le Châtelard-Frontière and the Alpine border with France. Dropping down, several paths cross the rows of vines above Martigny Croix. [snip]


MARTIGNY CROIX
A Walk in the Woods

At Martigny Croix beyond the old railway station building, there is a gravel path that rises gently past the rocky wide Dranse. With a sudden ascent the path turns sharply, climbing hard towards the hamlet of Les Ecoteaux.

At 905 metres Les Ecoteaux is the tapered end of a ridge that separates the valleys of the Rhône and the Bagnes. This is not apparent deep among the stands of mixed conifer and deciduous trees. The switchback climb is arduous.

Experienced walkers go slow, like mountain goats finding their way cautiously over firm ground. Gradually the path levels out onto a pleasant meadow, rising gently again towards the sprawling chalet of Chemin, a settlement 250 metres higher.

Here we consult the map, because we are facing a set of choices. To descend back down, to the town of Martigny, where the L-shaped Rhône slides into Lake Geneva, or continue upwards towards the Col des Planches, at 1411 metres the first high peak along the ascending ridge.

At the splendid Col des Planches the path offers some respite, descending slightly more than 100 metres down to Le Planard, a panoramic viewpoint. Also a crossroads. Five paths test our resolve. Three go down, two go up! Always a good time to stop and contemplate. Eat. And make the correct choice. It is too far early for lunch, so we snack on sun-dried raisins, dried apricot halves, slivered almonds, crushed walnuts, whole hazelnuts, some wild berries, an energy bar of honeyed seeds and grains, apple juice and pear nectar. This raises our energy levels.

Lunch is chunks of semi-hard cheese, wafers of air-dried beef, torn soft flatbread, a handful of spelt flakes and mineral water. That can wait. Although we are still hungry we need to continue – up or down?

A meal not too dissimilar was found to have been eaten by a walker on a different mission 5,300 years ago. As we are heading to the area where Ötzi, a 45-year old hunter, was found mummified by the ice, we will also leave that story until later in the journey.

Anyone walking today in the high mountains without high-energy provisions might not meet the same fate that Ötzi suffered, but they would find themselves wondering why they did not respect the wild, and that would make them exactly like the ancient iceman.

The most interesting path for us to take is the one that rises toward the ridge at Les Blisiers under the 2472 metre high peak of Pierre Avoi, towering over Verbier in the Bagnes valley and Saxon in the Rhône valley. It is interesting because the path runs alongside an intact Roman built viaduct. The Roman workers would also have been familiar with a lunch made from berries, grains, roots and seeds. They might even have been fortunate enough to have had some kind of meat to savour, and perhaps a swig or two of wine from local grapes to allow to linger.

This makes us wonder how they got back down. We look at the map again. And there it is, a steep path that drops down into Saxon on the valley flour. Anyway, before the descent, that lunch!

Terra firma.

We are tired and decide to visit a hostelry that serves barley soup. After a hard walk, this enigmatic winter soup is a reminder of how little the world has actually changed over millennia. It is hearty and conducive to well-being, just what we need.

That hike was hard.

Martigny


SWISS RAIL 2000 | TRAVEL TIMETABLES

On 6 December 1987 the Swiss voted and approved the multi-billion franc Bahn 2000, a strategy to overhaul their train network and travel system. New tracks, with new trains – including double-deckers and fast tilting trains – would reduce travel times, all travel connections would be within minutes of each other. An upgraded infrastructure would facilitate an integrated timetable. Fast forward to 2021 and this is exactly what travellers can expect when they board their regular mode of transport.

Rarely in the history of travel has a system been clock-worked to perfection.

The downside, partly caused by the devaluation of the Swiss franc, has been felt by tourists and travellers in the country. Yes, you can set your watch by the time of the black and red clock on the station platform and the times of the trains, but you can also pay the price if you don’t know how to get lower fares.

The Swiss system includes hundreds of travel elements – boat, bus and rail – and serves two million people who hold passes.

That is the clue. Always look for the reduction!

Swiss Railways Travel Cards


SAXON
The Apricot War

On August 7, 1953 apricot growers and their supporters besieged the small town of Saxon in the Swiss Valais canton to protest about the huge amount of Italian imports they claimed inhibited the sale of their produce. Freight trains carrying the Italian imports were looted and burned. The railway line and main road through the Rhône valley were blocked for several days. Consequently an agreement was made to restrict the foreign imports to aid the sale of the domestic produce.

Eight years later the growers faced another challenge when hazardous emissions from a factory in Martigny began to damage their crops. An eighteen year campaign finally brought sanctions against the factory owners and in 1982 the Swiss Federal Court issued an order for compensation to be paid to the growers.

Of the 176 apricot growers in the Valais today most develop the luizet variety, supplying two-thirds of the one million kilos needed to make approximately 120,000 bottles of 70 centilitre abricotine at the distillery in Martigny.

Two hundreds years after they were first cultivated in the Rhône valley, apricots (and apricot brandy) are now established in the food culture of the region, the warm, dry Valais climate perfect for the sensitive luizet. Planted on the south-facing embankments of the valley, apricot trees thrive in the alluvial soil.

Saxon to Fully (walk)


FULLY
Chestnut Fair

[snip]

Fully
Chestnut Fair

Charrat-Fully to Sion (train) 26 minutes


VALAIS
Brisolée

Three elements of the autumnal brisolée © Swiss Image

From the attic window in the alpine chalet, a fine mist can be seen hovering over the valley in the pubescent dawn, the sun still to rise over the mountain peaks. Gradually, as the morning lengthens its shadows, the mist will dissipate, the valley light will shimmer in the promise of a clear day and the high mountains will be framed by a blue window. This momentary vista is a mere glimpse of the absolute magic of the Rhône Valley, in high summer a sumptuous land full of growth, at summer’s end a mystical land like this morning.

All the way from the expanse of the lake known as Léman where cormorants gaze into the water from the rocks at Château de Chillon to the magnificence of the Aletsch Glacier where chamois look askance at solitary hikers high above the longitudinal plain, this Swiss valley canton offers something unique in the world.

It is the first week of October. The grapes have been harvested, the chestnuts have been collected and apples, apricots and pears have been dried and pulped and fermented and left whole. Tweaks have been made to apple pie recipes. New wines have been selected. Rounds of mountain cheese have been declared ready. Legs of beef have been salt-spice cured, air-dried and delicately sliced, also ready. Batches of rye bread have been baked. Finally the apples pies have been prepared … and baked. Everyone is ready!

Hand-picking sweet chestnuts from the woods alongside the Rhône under the high peaks is an old tradition of the people.

Traditionally the chestnuts were roasted over an open fire, taken inside and served with chunks of mature mountain cheese accompanied by fresh grapes, pieces of apple and pear, grape (must) juice or young wine to wash everything down. Nothing unusual there, just the typical country fare of the canton.

Except this is brisolée, the autumn harvest plate of the people who tend the land where the Rhône is joined by the Dranse at the acute turn eastwards into the valley below the Bernese Alps at Martigny.

Here chestnuts abound between the river, the town of Martigny and the adjacent village of Fully, where the annual chestnut fair is more than a celebration, it is an event characterised by brisolée and fondue and the traditional produce and products of the valley.

The roast chestnut, cheese and wine tradition morphed into a café culture in the Martigny-Fully region in the 1960s when café and restaurant owners realised they could replicate the domestic culture, and offer buffet-style versions of the original plate in a celebration of the change of the seasons.

Brisolée became a traditional dish with an appeal beyond the Martigny-Fully region. Now it is an aspect of the food culture in the Swiss-French speaking areas of the Valais and neighbouring Vaud along the Lac Léman shore. Chestnuts, cheese and wine remain the common denominators of the dish, except among those (including the organisers of the chestnut fair at Fully) who include other Valais products, such as the air-dried beef produced in the canton and various charcuterie. Deep red in colour, these thin slices of beef give off an aroma that is unique to their producers. They compliment brisolée.

In the home the older tradition prevails, with apple tart an integral component. The rye bread of the region is now an essential component of the café and fair culture, and sometimes a brisolée plate will contain roast chestnuts, cheese, rye bread and air-dried beef.

A good place to sample brisolée is the Restaurant de Plan-Cerisier above Martigny Croix on the switch-back road into France.

What a fête!

Brisolée Recipe
Restaurant de Plan-Cerisier


SION
Raclette du Valais

A winemaker called Leon is held responsible for the invention of the melting cheese recipe when he accidentally let a half-wheel of mountain cheese melt by the fire. It would be a good story if the origins of cheese-making in the hidden valleys of the Rhône river valley did not go back thousands of years. For centuries cheese was used as currency among the people and with visiting traders.

Geographically and historically linked to the area that now defines the canton, specifically the valleys of Bagnes and Goms, raclette du Valais is a semi-hard cheese associated with the lively hérens cows. As much a part of Swiss alpine scenery as the chalet and cable car, these cows graze the fragrant flora of sloping meadows along with the black-dotted cows of picture postcard Switzerland. The people of the Rhône valley regard their raclette as the true melting cheese despite its wider production in other parts of Switzerland and especially on the other side of the Alps in Savoy.

For hoteliers like Stefan Welschen, our host for the night in Brig, raclette is the speciality of the canton, because of its character and the variety of its flavours. The herders of the Goms Valley insist their milk is superior to that of the neighbouring Val de Bagnes, and vice versa. Once described as ‘delicious, fatty, sweet and soft,’ the raclette wheels are consumed by the Valaisans themselves, melted, scraped and served in numerous ways or grilled until its edges are crisped.

Sion
Products of the Valais

Sion to Brig (train) 27-48 minutes


RECIPE — Brisolée autumn harvest buffet with chestnuts, cheese, fruit and wine

RECIPE — Chräpfli festival pastries

RECIPE — Cholera cheese, pear, potato pie

RECIPE — Cordon Bleu breaded vescalopes

RECIPE — Fondue Apfel Walnuss fondue apple walnuts

RECIPE — Roggenbrot / Pains de Seigle rye bread

RECIPE — Walliser Käseschnitte Wallis baked racelette cheese, ham and tomato slices with fried egg, gherkins and onions


TWO MARTINS

Martin, an elderly chef who works in a family restaurant in Naters, across the bridge from Brig, insists that the unique sense of place Swiss people share with their mountains and valleys is dying out, destroyed by modernity and technology. However another Martin, one of the young project managers who worked at the construction of the 34.6 kilometre railway tunnel through the base of the Alps between Raron in the Rhône valley and Frutigen in the Kander valley, takes a sense of pride in the creation of this human-built artefact.

Functionality is a byword of modern Switzerland. It defines the daily activity of a country that runs to precise timetables and delivers its workers and visitors to their destinations on time, whether by bus, train, funicular, cable car, boat or airplane. The workers then deliver a commerce that the people expect, in their offices, schools, factories, farms, shops, restaurants and construction sites.

’Switzerland,’ says Benedikt Loderer, ’is fully utilised.’ The relationship between the human built world and natural world is the theme of Switzerland: an Overview by Emil Zopfi, et al, a collection of five essays , which look at these two Switzerlands – Beautiful Switzerland and Utility Switzerland.

What makes the book breathtaking along with its literary scope are the majestic aerial photographs, which accompany the essays, placing them in a context that cannot refute the perspectives of the essayists.

Loderer is the most persuasive with his argument that Switzerland no longer exists. ’The beautiful Switzerland you see is the pre-industrial one,’ he says. ’Within two generations we have consumed too much of Switzerland. [It] is fully utilised. We know precisely what every bit of it can be used for, whether it’s a lake, a glacier, a cliff, arable or maintained land. This also means that it’s already been decided what the land may not be used for. The main difference is that of construction zones and non-construction zones.’

The Valais / Wallis canton is precisely that. The human-built construction zone at the Raron end of the Lötschberg base tunnel contrasts starkly with the natural mountain peaks above, and the creation of an artificial mound containing the tunnel deposits at the southern edge of the Rhone valley flood plain. The relocation – on the orders of the federal government, who commissioned the tunnel – of wildlife disturbed by the construction reveals the sensitive nature of ’nachhaltig’ (sustainable development) in Switzerland. This is also Loderer’s argument. ’Beauty Switzerland is a recompense for Utility Switzerland,’ he says.

’There are two conditions left in the country; the city and the mountains. We’ve become tourists in our own country. We commute from Utility to Beauty Switzerland in order to consolidate our identity there. Being convinced of the beauty of the country in our innermost being, we must get out of the agglomeration from time to time and refresh ourselves with a landscape and a picturesque settlement.

There are two directions: into the old inner cities or into the mountains. It depends on the type of nourishment we lack. In the old inner city there is more cultural enjoyment; in the mountains, it’s more the enjoyment of Nature. And there is a sufficient number of rewarding destinations for both directions. This book proves it.’

Loderer apologises for his cynicism. And he must. This book is an honest appraisal of modern Switzerland and the pictures do prove that Switzerland is still beautiful and rewarding, one of the most attractive countries in Europe. The Switzerland of pristine alpine and lakeside resorts, modern funparks and elaborate transport systems offers as much to the visitor as the Switzerland of precipitous mountain paths, old restaurants and traditional festivals.

The photographs – from the ’photoswissair’ collection of the Luftbild Schweiz Foundation, started by Walter Mittelholzer, the Swiss pioneer aviator and photographer who began taking aerial pictures in 1918 – show both Switzerlands. They reveal, in glimpses, the Switzerland of the pre-industrial era and the modern Switzerland that contradicts its romantic caricature. Unlike Italy, which is suffocating under the weight of expectation, Switzerland has been allowed to reinvent itself, for good or bad.

More than Frenchman Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s stunning aerial pictures of human settlements in every region of the Earth, the Luftbild Schweiz photographs reveal an intimacy that only those who live in Switzerland and know every centimetre will fully appreciate. As an overview of a country this book is a perfect portal. From the pictures of the Matterhorn, as if civilisation never existed, to the pictures of the Rhône glacier, where civilisation in the form of a switchback road and a hotel creeps up to the edge of the ice, Switzerland is at once untamed and tamed. Iso Camartin agrees.

’It is not even the boldness with which human beings have made changes in the landscape, opposing the natural growth and nature-given beauty with another one: that of beautiful design and daring construction.’

Martin, when he was in his tunnel, would agree that daring construction now defines Switzerland. Martin, in his kitchen, would not. For him Switzerland is and always will be the mountains.

Camartin, however, knows the real truth. ’What are we complaining about?’ he says. ’It’s great to live here.’


BRIG
Don’t Be Slow Coming Back

Stockalper’s Castle was built from 1658 to 1678 by Kaspar Jodok von Stockalper. © Valais Tourism / Swiss Image

Winter has fallen on Brig. The smell of roasted chestnuts wafts up from the railway station, where heavily clothed snow revellers carrying skis and snowboards pour onto the cold dry streets. This Swiss-German-speaking town sits under the high Alps at the south-east end of the canton astride the Rhône River. On the southern side of the mountains lies lake Maggiore, the sweep of the Po Valley and the Italian cities of Turin, Milan and Genoa. To get there travellers go over the Simplon Pass by road or take the train through the 100-year-old Simplon railway tunnel. It is the way it has always been.

Brig is a crossroads.

At the Hotel Ambassador, Zürich-born Stefan Welschen is content. He has a regular clientele who eat regularly in his Cheminots restaurant, and many of those who arrive at the stone steps of number three Saflischstrasse to stay are familiar with the hotel. ’Don’t be slow coming back,’ he says. ’I will always be here.’

So has Brig. The town’s name comes from the Latin Briva for bridge. ’Brig is an historic town,’ he says in an accent that has lost some of its Zürich roots. ’Since the Romans came, they stay in Brig because they can cross the mountains in one day. They rested here. Napoleon was here with his troops. Five battalions stayed here first, then crossed the Simplon Pass.’

Today it is possible to trace the footsteps of the Roman and Napoleonic soldiers. There is a hiking trail that follows an old path used for centuries by merchants and their mules. The trail begins in Brig at the 17th century Stockalper Palace. It was Kaspar Jodok von Stockalper, a Brig merchant, who developed the trail. Once, the merchants would have halted in an inn at the Simplon Pass. These days, the curious can learn the history of the trail by stopping at the old inn, now a museum. For most though it is the railway that brings them to Brig.

Throughout the 1900s Brig was the place to cross the mountains. ’Even when the train system became global, more international trains stopped in Brig,’ he says, admitting that the location of the town on the Swiss-Italian border has often worked in their favour when Italian train workers have gone on strike. ‘It is only for 24 hours, so,’ he says pausing for effect, ’what happens? They get off the train here. I mean, here is the end, and they need a room. A lot of them we get in the summer, they go on to Venice but they come back here. So Brig is a changing point, a central point here in the Alps.’

The people of the Brig region speak with a unique dialect, a schwyzerdeutsche that Stefan took a while to get used to. ’The accent’s so strong here that Germans don’t understand what Brig people are talking about. When Brig people ordered something I had to find out what that meant. It’s more strong than Irish or Scottish accents.’

In recent years this accent, especially among the young, has become easier to understand. Brig is now open to the world and remains a crucial Alpine crossroad.

Brig

Brig to Domodossola (train) 30 minutes


These are edited draft versions of some the sections that will appear in the finished book.


Blue Window – Italy II